★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Crystal River I

Rural to Shadow Lake Road:
The Crystal River is just that, crystal clear and as charming as the town of Rural that it flows through. It’s never very deep and you’re never far from civilization, so it’s about as family-friendly of a paddle as you can get. And… if you enjoy a little excitement on the water, there’s a lot to love because I’m not convinced there’s another 4.75 miles of any river in Wisconsin that packs as much diversity from beginning to end for beginner and/or rapid-curious paddlers. It’s no surprise that it’s a very popular paddling destination.

Crystal River

Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: October 10, 2022

Previous Trip Reports:
July 8, 2012
September 10, 2011

Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Riffles + Class I

Gradient:
≈ 5′ per mile

Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Waupaca (Waupaca River): Gauge discontinued in June of 2020.
Gauge notes: This correlative gauge located on the Waupaca River was discontinued.

Current Levels:
Waupaca (Waupaca River): Gauge discontinued in June of 2020.

Recommended Levels:
Since, sadly, there’s no longer a working gauge on the Crystal River, none of our previous recorded levels give us a indicator of what is too high or low. That said, this was the lowest I’ve paddled it and it was completely fine throughout, which tells me water levels are almost always reliable. The exception being drought conditions.

Put-In:
Main Street, Rural, Wisconsin
GPS: 44.31259, -89.15951
Take-Out:
Shadow Lake Road, Little Hope, Wisconsin
GPS: 44.31967, -89.0978

Time: Put in at 12:05p. Out at 1:40p.
Total Time: 1h 35m
Miles Paddled: 4.75

Wildlife:
Turtles, trout, ducks, geese, heron and a fox on the bike shuttle.

Shuttle Information:
4 miles. A short 17-minute bike-shuttle on roads with very little incline. Highway K is a little busy but the other half along Rural Road is generally less-trafficked. While shuttling, I rode up on a fox midday. I certainly surprised the little guy (and vice versa) before it scurried off into a drainage pipe. The other thing that made me chuckle (and brought me back some years) was passing by this house that got toiled-papered. I hadn’t thought about that type of mischief in a long time. I was happy to see it alive and well, because it was a clear sign that we’ve moved so far past the pandemic that we can stop hoarding and start TP’ing again.


Background:

The Crystal is one unique gem. It’s as if the Wisconsin Dells or Disney intentionally designed it to include crystal clear water, a sandy river bed here, a stony river bed there, current like a lazy river, riffles, rapids, boulders, boulder gardens, footbridges, quaint ornate bridges, a red mill, a red covered bridge, geese-a-gaggling, ducks-a-quackin’, painted yard gnomes, characters, deadpan signs along the banks, a quiet lily pad dotted-pond for Mom and Dad, and a legit shooting range near the end, which every boy loves. The only features missing were waterslides and a gondola from put-in to takeout. It’s weird and quirky but so welcoming and fun. 

Now, this isn’t a “safe river” – no river is – and I’d never suggest that, but the shallow depth and clarity make it an ideal candidate for the beginner/ rapid-curious paddler. It’s perfectly set up for novice paddlers to get a feel for what whitewater (or what we call light-water) is like. It’s not whitewater in the sustainable sense, but there’s a couple of drops in succession to prove ones’ current-reading skills which is essential learning for a beginner’s course. And you have to start somewhere, right? 

Now, even the most casual Miles Paddled reader probably knows that I love the Waupaca area, specifically the Waupaca/Tomorrow and Crystal Rivers. Yet, it’s been awhile since I paddled this specific section. The most recent visit was when I put-in at Marl Lake and paddled the headwaters of the Crystal River in 2015. But it’s been way too long since I updated this report.

Additionally, even the most casual Miles Paddled reader also knows that some of our older/early reports often lack a lot of detail – they were largely written from a blogger POV when I didn’t know any better. There are still a lot of reports that deserve a proper re-write, but none more than this section of the Crystal River. This one was ultra-light and doing no service whatsoever to anyone. It had basically just been taking up space on the web.

Ten years is a long time for any moving body of water. The Crystal is no different. Some things have changed for the better and the rest that I loved remains unchanged. I had been there when the Little Hope dam existed, creating a millpond upstream. I even ran that dam. But I’ve been there since it was removed too, back on that 2015 trip. However, that was six years prior to today, so I was really curious to see the effects of what that dam removal had created in its absence.

I had also never paddled this in fall which is always a great way to add a different dimension to subsequent trips. The short of it: it was very appealing and I very much recommend it.

These 4.75 miles covered by Mike Svob in Paddling Southern Wisconsin inspired and delighted me over a decade ago, and it was time to give it a proper writeup. So here’s the long overdo due the Crystal River deserves.

Overview:
The adventure begins in the quaint unincorporated community of Rural, part of the town of Dayton (as is Little Hope and Parfreyville.) Rural’s claim to fame is that it was home to State Senator George Hudnall and State legislator Andrew Potts, so it’s a little light on history despite the old-town charm of its beautiful homes and facades.

The put-in is centered in the middle of town across from a rundown convenience store which was obviously a Phillips 66 at one time (and who knows what before then). The town seems like it’s built around this launch, and I love that it’s the heart of town. Not long ago, the tubing company known as Ding’s Dock had a sign directing paddlers towards the put-in access. It’s no longer there as they no longer run the tubing business, but it’s still obvious where to access the launch. Pliska’s is now the tubing outfitter and while I’m sure there’s a lot of tubing on this river, I’ve rarely seen tubers. Paddle-traffic is a different story – you’ll often share the river with other paddlers on weekends. On weekdays however, you’ll likely have the river to yourself (like I did today).

What’s unique about the put-in is that you first walk through ankle-high water for about 12-feet through a diverted part of the Crystal River which feeds a homeowner’s water feature downstream. If that feature allows paddlers such simple access by simply getting our feet wet, I’ll take it. Then, a path leads down to the landing where you’re met by a large shallow pool of crystal clear water and the sounds of water gushing from below the charming Main Street stone bridge. 

The trip begins in interesting fashion because for the first bit, you’re in anything but “rural” surroundings as you meander through town, twisting beneath attractive concrete bridges that thread back-and-forth below Rural Road and along manicured lawnscapes and rip-rapped banks. The stream is very narrow and cozy at only 25′ wide, which only reinforces that creek and river-naming designations are arbitrary – width be damned. The Crystal River paddles like a creek. The crystal-clear water shimmering below, swift current, and the occasional boulder lying midstream add to a very visually pleasing (if not somewhat artificial) beginning to this trip.

After the third pass beneath Rural Road, the river begins to feel more like a river (er, creek?) past one last house because it becomes a bit more rugged and woodsy for a short spell. Soon though, you’ll pass one last house on the left and the river opens up to Junction Lake which feels more marshlike than lake, but it wouldn’t be your typical marsh. It’s very clear and only about six inches deep with lilypads stretching along the entire left-hand bend towards where the Crystal returns to a narrow 50-70′ width. It’s a short clip, but it was pretty with the fall colors popping from the distance on the east bank. You’ll likely encounter a lot of geese making what noise they make, like I did. This is the calm before the storm, so to speak though, because right after the Crystal returns to its more consistent width once more, its next section is immediately full of boulders, boulder gardens, and the first class I rapids.

A large boulder garden hugs the right bank leading to a small private bridge which marks the beginning of riffles and light rapids, starting with a Class I immediately below the bridge. This is where most beginners might capsize because it doesn’t have the cleanest chutes in times of lower water and when it’s higher, it needs to be read correctly. (I would consider it the most technical on all of the Crystal.) It’s the first reminder that this is a real river. Manicured, yes. Manufactured? Not at all.

Following are larger boulders, gentle drops, and soon an island with a charming footbridge pointed downstream located on a sliver of an island that divides the stream into two parts. Attention to the current is required to cleanly navigate the boulders and logs as the river continues to twist and turn. Deadfall is present but usually manageable since this is a popular and mostly-maintained stretch. Any large obstacles are likely already dealt with unless it’s early in the year or perhaps after a storm. This section is short, (but oh so fun!) and pretty and such a great taste of whitewater. But it’s not sustained-whitewater for minutes on end, which is why it’s a great course to consider for those seeking an introduction to rapids.

Soon, you’ll reach Sanders Road and things return to a calmer and gentler state as it winds through backyards through a mostly-canopied section. You will however, hear a lot more traffic from County Highway K which is never very far off on river-right. 

Then comes the “fun drop” on the approach to Rural Road (once again) and it’s somewhat the centerpiece of the river, or at least, this section. This is the longest drop on the river at about 300′ but it’s gently-sloped and can be run cleanly if you read the current correctly. It can, and usually is scouted, because there’s a convenient no-name wayside at the corner of Rural Road/Highway K/Smith Road where you can get a great view of all of it. The wayside is also just a great stop to picnic or get your feet wet. Once you make your way down the head of the first drop, and after some maneuvering, there’s another drop directly below the Rural Road bridge, but it’s more more splashy and fun than it is technical.

And the fun isn’t even over yet because after the river meanders for a bit, there’s still two more drops ahead. The first, a narrow chute near a stone and concrete landscaped passage. After which, the river twists through wooded gentle bends, around boulders, and soon you’ll encounter the last drop. It’s a boulder-lined ledge with a clean passage on river-right. It’s the truest ledge on this trip by definition, but it’s more fun than intimidating.

The next landmark before the river changes complexion once again is Pliska’s Crystal River Tubing and Kayak landing. (This was formerly Ding’s take-out.) You can’t miss it or its a wide-open landing outfitted with outhouses. Soon after is the Parfreyville Road bridge where the woodsy environment and riffles are replaced with a calmer open environment. It’s more of a twisty channel and a bit wider than the upstream confines because not too long ago, this was the Little Hope Mill pond. And It’s pretty remarkable how this section of the river has changed in a different, but more positive way, since previous visits.

The Crystal River is the prime example of the old saying that you never paddle the same river twice. Every time I’ve been here, it’s been different, specifically with regards to the mill pond. On one occasion as mentioned, I ran the dam chute after a slog through the wide and stagnant pond. During the last visit, the dam was opened as water levels were being drawn down while red tape (and waterfront property owner resistance) was holding up its potential removal. At that time, the pond already started showing a return to its natural course (and beauty.) Just a few months after that last paddle, the red tape was cut and it was removed completely in July of 2015. This time? It was a river once again with absolutely no evidence that the dam ever existed.

The former millpond section was definitely longer than I remembered but it was pretty, enjoyable and interesting. It was really shallow and the incredibly clear water was enhanced by a cleaner bottom that created the added effect of feeling like I was paddling on air. Those property owners who had millpond access now have river access, but it’s changed their physical relationship to the water. To the north, there’s now more open land which extended and expanded their property/backyards all the way to the river’s edge. To the south, instead of a stagnant millpond, they now have access to a moving-river.

At the end of the former millpond and sitting up on Crystal Road/Highway K is the Red Mill. Soon, you’ll be paddling behind it, but not before paddling river-left past where the dam used to be (which again, shows no shred of evidence that it even existed in the first place) and then under the Highway K bridge towards Nelson Park. Nelson is a great access point and you could end your paddle here but I wouldn’t recommend it. I’ve contended before and I’ll contend again that it’s worth continuing on for another mile to Shadow Lake Road – not just because paddling behind the Red Mill and under the covered bridge is delightful, but because there’s something more fulfilling in ending this paddle on what feels like the river you put-in on versus the open environment of what was the millpond. But you do you.

After winding around the small but photogenic Nelson Park, you’ll spot the Red Mill on river-right. The mill was built in 1855. It ground grain like cornmeal and graham flour, as well as livestock feed for Little Hope and Waupaca area farmers. It was auctioned in 1959 and renovated in the 60s. The Red Mill’s wooden waterwheel was not original to the building (after the waterwheel was added, it worked for a dozen years before the axle rotted out, so it sat idle for years) and to my surprise, it was no longer attached to the side of the mill. Turns out, time has once again come for it to be replaced and there is a group actively working on restoring it. The old signage on the backside of the mill is also not original to the building, nor is the beautiful red covered bridge or the chapel on river-left just downstream. As part of a remodel in the 70s, they were added on, but they’re still charming nonetheless. The whole setting is really pretty, and the mill is now a popular tourist destination, part museum, part gift shop. 

Past the covered bridge, the river becomes more like the creek-like version of the Crystal once again. It’s wooded with more deadfall than upstream because it’s paddled less often. There’s one more notable landmark on this last leg and that’s the Waupaca Conservation League’s shooting range which is punctuated by the last set of light rapids/riffles and small boulders beneath their footbridge. The archery range runs parallel to river-right, while the shooting range directs its bullets away from the river (we can only hope). It can be a little unnerving but I would hope any bullets or arrows would cease flying if paddlers were traveling by.

After the excitement of potentially be shot by something, there’s not much more distance to the takeout. Just more deadfall, all manageable, except there was one portage within (maybe) a hundred yards from the takeout during my visit. There was a tree that blocked the river from bank-to-bank but it appeared to have recently fallen based on the leaves still attached, so this is likely temporary. Either way, it’s shallow enough to weave your boat through the tree or bypass around on the bank (which is the path I chose).

Just downriver and around a couple bends is an improved takeout just upstream-left of the Shadow Road bridge. The bridge had clearly been redone recently and I can only assume that the access point was improved at that same time because on prior visits, there was only shoulder-parking and the access point was on the other side of the bridge. Now there’s an obvious parking area with an easy and obvious path to the access. It’s quite convenient and a very welcoming takeout.

What we liked:
There’s just so much to love about the Crystal and it’s always great to revisit for me, personally. And it’s even better with years between the removal of the dam. The restoration of the millpond isn’t complete but the progress is evident and it just feels like a positive thing happened – the river feels even more complete.

I especially enjoyed the added experience of paddling this in fall. Many don’t think about paddling something in a different season – opting to only paddle when it’s warm out, but it’s a great way to shake up a paddle you might’ve done numerous times. It just adds a different element or experience or feeling or visual to something familiar.

While fall might enhance the most mundane of paddles, spring can also do the same, uncovering hidden things you might not otherwise see (or maybe haven’t noticed before) when the surroundings are barren and outcrops or other curiosities are exposed. There’s your MilePaddled.com “Pro Tip of the Day.”

What we didn’t like:
There’s nothing I dislike about the Crystal River. Even the portage on this trip. That’s expected when paddling. It will always be a go-to and any minor inconvenience like a portage is just that, minor.

If we did this trip again:
I’ll be back in any season, no doubt. In fact, probably sooner than later since the kids are going to need their first taste of light-water, and I can’t think of a better river to do so.

***************
Related Information:
Crystal River Overview: Crystal River Paddle Guide
Crystal River II: Marl Lake to Shadow Lake Road
Crystal River III: Little Hope to Shadow Lake
Camp: Hartman Creek State Park
Outfitter: Adventure Outfitters
Video: Morrall River Films

Picture Gallery:

……………………………………………….

Previous Trip Report:
July 8, 2012
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

A delightfully fun and playful narrow river (more creek-like than not) in central Wisconsin, located just outside of Waupaca, the Crystal is a charming little paddle.

Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Waupaca (Waupaca River): ht/ft: n/a | cfs: 150

Current Levels:
Waupaca (Waupaca River): Gauge Discountinued June, 2020

Recommended Levels:
This is a very recommendable level. Water levels are almost always reliable.

Time: Put in at 2:30p. Out at 4:30p.
Total Time: 2h

Wildlife:
Great blue herons, turtles, big fish, crawfish and kingfishers.

Background:
Since this same stretch has been written about already, I shall be brief and merely emphasize that it is a great little river, offering accurately named clear water and continual riffles that are tons of fun. There is one Class I rapid and it’s a hoot. Since the water level is never all that high, you’re never really in any danger. The portage at the dam by Little Hope Mill Pond is indeed steep, so caution is advised but it’s nothing too tricky. Also, adding the last 2/3 of a mile to an already short trip, is well worth it.

The reason this trip is so short is the river itself is only some 10 miles long. It begins at Long Lake, one of the Waupaca “Chain O’ Lakes” and then drains into the Waupaca River itself after a dam, just east of downtown Waupaca. After the Shadow Road bridge there are no access points until the Highway 22 bridge, which is not recommended. To extend this trip, it is advised to do so before the river (i.e., through the chain of lakes, pardon me, chain o’ lakes). Marl Lake, which is close to Hartman Creek State Park, does look lovely and surreally aquamarine.

I had fantasized about putting in somewhere within the park itself, paddle the eponymous Hartman Creek into the “chain” and then wend my way down to the mouth of the Crystal. Alas, the lack of rain and low water levels precluded this whimsy. But I bet it could be done in early spring, though I advise calling the park first: 715-258-2372.

What we liked:
Fun riffles! And for such a narrow stream and a relatively short distance, this stretch of the Crystal offered a surprising diversity: a wider lake-like section, tall banks, adorable houses (the town of Rural, in case such a name itself isn’t adorable enough, is just about cut and pasted from fairyland and is as cute as it is quaint). Also, this is a great area for road bicycling (see info below).

What we didn’t like:
Too short! And you will likely encounter a good amount of tubers (not the vegetable root-type). Waupaca, while not as resorty as places like Minocqua or Lake Geneva, is definitely a destination for tourists. (You know you’re being pandered to as a vacationing Illinoisan when (at a gas station not all that terribly far from Green Bay…) Chicago Bears and Cubs swag is being sold!

That and the potential for overhead arrows flown over my scalp (but I doubt this is too serious a risk). The sign advising you to take caution is pretty funny; it comes suddenly and inspires a spirit of resignation, for what are you going to do…?

If we did this trip again:
I will, and add to it, some of the “chain” lake sections. I will for sure paddle the section of the river upstream from the Main Street put-in.

Photo Gallery:

……………………………………………….

Previous Trip Report:
September 10, 2011
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

The Crystal River is just as charming as the town of Rural that it flows through. It’s never very deep and you’re never far from civilization so it’s about as family-friendly of a paddle as you can get if you enjoy a little excitement on the water.

Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Waupaca (Waupaca River): ht/ft: n/a | cfs: 230
Gauge notes: This is a correlative gauge located on the Waupaca River.

Current Levels:
Waupaca (Waupaca River): Gauge discontinued in June of 2020.

Time: Put in at 12:00p. Out at 1:30p.
Total Time: 1h 30m

Wildlife:
Great blue herons, turtles, big fish, crawfish and kingfishers.

Overview:
Rural is a tiny little town that seems to take pride in manicuring itself around the river (I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t envious of owning property alongside such a peaceful and beautiful stream). The put-in off Main Street is a unique little start to the journey with a couple of bridges that split the river in two. The Crystal is mostly sand and rocky-bottomed with only Junction Lake and the Little Hope Mill Pond offering up some weeds. The river is generally narrow throughout with countless riffles. The class I drop before Rural Road bridge is easy and fun to paddle through. There are plenty of fish to startle on your journey and I came across a few turtles as well as a couple cranes.

It was a beautiful Saturday and I was surprised to have only encountered one other group of paddlers but I’ve heard it gets quite busy on the weekends. I do recommend portaging the dam and continuing on to Shadow Lake road. It extends the journey and taking out at the pond is a little anti-climatic. The dam has a pretty easy portage but the walk down is a little steep so use caution.

Lastly, I’m not sure what kind of sign this is but this was the second time in two Waupaca-area paddles where I paddled through nuptials. A wedding was taking place at the covered bridge and I was relieved that I didn’t wipe-out and interrupt the priest.

What we liked:
Everything about the Crystal – it truly is a gem (pun!)

What we didn’t like:
The lake section and more specifically, the Little Hope mill pond are pretty stagnant flat water sections. The pond was quite low so I had to get out and drag my kayak a good distance until I sunk down to my knees in some amazing quicksand-style muck. Had I not been wearing my trusty Chacos I would have lost a dear friend (it’s happened).

If we did this trip again:
I skipped the upper section to avoid lake paddling (something I’m not a fan of) but next time I’m all in because it’s such a great little river and it’s almost too short (but you can’t knock a river for that).

Also, if you are in the area, stop at Marl Lake. It’s a beautiful turquoise-colored lake and you could start your paddle there (as suggested by Morrall River Films) and make your way through the connecting lakes all the way down to the southern part of Long Lake where the Crystal begins. You can find Marl Lake by heading West on Rural Road. Before you get to Hartman Creek State Park you’ll take a right on Whispering Pines road. The put-in will soon be on your left. The parking lot was full when I stopped, as was the lake, with lots of canoe, kayakers and even a paddle-boarder.

Miles Paddled Video:

Photo Gallery:

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